#470: Finding Your Footing as a DEI Speaker with Dominique Luster [Transcript]

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Grant Baldwin:

Hey, friends! Grant Baldwin here. Welcome back to The Speaker Lab Podcast. I’m thrilled to have you here with us today. Today, we have a special guest, Dominique Luster, who is one of our Speaker Lab students. Dominique, welcome, and I’m really looking forward to our conversation today.

Dominique Luster:

Thank you so much, Grant. I’m excited to be here and chat with you.

Grant Baldwin:

Fantastic! So, you’ve been a listener of the podcast for a while, right?

Dominique Luster:

Absolutely, Grant. I’ve been a dedicated listener. I actually started from the very beginning and worked my way through, although I have to admit I haven’t made it through all 400+ episodes.

Grant Baldwin:

Haha, that’s understandable. It’s quite the commitment.

Dominique Luster:

Indeed, but I’ve covered a good chunk of them.

Grant Baldwin:

Great to hear! Not only have you been a podcast listener, but you also joined one of our programs about a year ago. You’ve really been putting in the work. So, before we dive into that, could you tell us a bit about yourself and how speaking fits into your overall business?

How does speaking fit into your story?

Dominique Luster:

Certainly, Grant. I’m originally from Kentucky, and I have a deep love for bourbon, horses, and all things Kentucky. However, my career path has taken me into the world of archiving and storytelling. I like to describe it as if Indiana Jones met African-American history and uncovered incredible stories and treasures within it. My work revolves around African American history, culture, teaching, facilitating, and sharing these rich narratives. I wear many hats, from being an archivist to a curator, speaker, consultant, writer, and thinker. Essentially, I immerse myself in my favorite subjects and passions, which include African-American history, culture, and education. It’s a multifaceted journey that I absolutely love.

Grant Baldwin:

That’s fascinating! I’m curious about the origins of these passions and how they all converged to create speaking opportunities in your career. Could you share a bit about where these passions came from and how they eventually led to speaking as a viable career option?

What made speaking a viable career option?

Dominique Luster:

You might find it surprising, Grant, but my background is in theater, specifically lighting design. I was deeply involved in theater, even on and off Broadway. However, my career took a sharp turn thanks to a mentor. After returning from a Fulbright program in Germany, I was searching for an on-campus job and stumbled upon a position in the library, which introduced me to archival work.

This opportunity exposed me to historic records, documents, and the tangible aspects of history. It was a profound experience that made me realize that history isn’t just a sequence of events but also encompasses the physical records, letters, diaries, and posters that shape our understanding of the past. My mentor recognized my potential and sat me down, saying, “Did you know this could be a career? People have degrees in this, and it can lead to fulfilling careers.” That pivotal moment launched my journey into the world of archiving, storytelling, and eventually, speaking about the rich history and culture I’m passionate about.

Grant Baldwin:

Right, so let’s delve deeper into how speaking became part of your journey. You mentioned that even before you recognized it, you were already speaking in your role as an archivist, conducting tours and teaching. Can you elaborate on how that gradually led you to realize you were already involved in speaking? And how did the transition from these tours to more formal speaking engagements occur?

How did you transition from leading tours to speaking professionally?

Dominique Luster:

Certainly, Grant. It’s quite a unique journey. Initially, I didn’t even perceive it as speaking. I was immersed in my work as an archivist, teaching, and guiding tours. My background was in theater, and I was no stranger to the stage, but I didn’t associate my work with public speaking. I was involved in museum settings and even conducted tours for kids, high school students, and university students. Essentially, I was continuously teaching and sharing historical narratives with audiences.

In these curated experiences, I would lead groups through galleries, sharing stories from the walls, helping people connect with history, and understand its relevance to them. It wasn’t until I was invited to do a TEDx Talk that I recognized the speaking aspect of what I was doing. I initially agreed without fully realizing what it entailed. It turned out to be the most challenging thing I had ever done, but it also awakened a new dimension in my career.

From that point, I realized that speaking was an integral part of my work, and I began to receive requests to speak to organizations, classrooms, and events. People who had seen my TEDx Talk reached out, wanting more insights from me. It started organically as I aimed to serve my community, share knowledge, and address the burning passion within me. The more I immersed myself in this work, the more it transformed and evolved into a strategic approach to my speaking career.

Grant Baldwin:

That’s a fantastic journey. Now, let’s dive deeper into your work in the DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) space, which is a significant part of your speaking career today. Could you share how this transition unfolded, particularly within the context of the Speaker Lab program?

How did you come to recognize the potential in the DEI space and align it with your passion for diverse history and education?

Dominique Luster:

Absolutely, Grant. The shift towards the DEI space was a process that significantly benefited from the Speaker Lab program. Throughout the coursework, I was continuously challenged to narrow down my speaking topics and target audiences. Initially, it was a bit frustrating because the instructors kept pushing me to get more specific. However, it was incredibly effective.

I remember going through multiple rounds of refining my abstracts and topic areas. I gradually realized that the niche I had identified based on my background and industry, which focused on archiving and education, was somewhat distinct from the potential to reach a broader audience. This realization was made possible by the program’s guidance.

As I honed in on my message, I became open to the idea that my work had a place within the DEI space. I had been discussing diverse history for nearly a decade, primarily focusing on African American history and marginalized narratives. This foundation naturally led me to explore the DEI space, allowing me to pivot while building upon my existing expertise.

In essence, the Speaker Lab program played a crucial role in helping me recognize the potential within the DEI space and aligning it with my passion for educating about diverse history and cultures.

Grant Baldwin:

Certainly, Dominique, you’ve highlighted the diversity within the DEI space, and it’s clear that there are countless angles and perspectives to explore. These can range from HR-focused approaches to workforce training, inclusion and belonging initiatives, government policies, historical perspectives, and more. The opportunities are as varied as one’s imagination. If you can envision it, there’s likely a niche and an audience seeking your expertise. The DEI space extends far beyond corporate organizations, encompassing community programs, nonprofit organizations, educational institutions of all levels, and more. There’s a niche for every unique perspective and problem-solving approach.

Now, let’s discuss a critical point. While you may be deeply passionate and knowledgeable about a particular aspect of the DEI space, it’s essential to assess whether organizations and groups are genuinely interested in it and willing to hire speakers for such topics. How have you navigated this challenge, and what advice can you offer to speakers who may face a similar situation? In other words, how did you determine that colleges and universities were the right audience for your expertise, and what guidance can you provide to others trying to find their ideal audience?

How did you find your ideal audience?

Dominique Luster:

Navigating this challenge requires a candid assessment of the problem you’re addressing and the audience you’re serving. Let’s take my experience as an example. I specialize in African-American history, and while some for-profit companies may appreciate my expertise, they often don’t know how to integrate it into their objectives. So, it’s crucial to be honest with yourself. You can’t simply aspire to speak at Fortune 500 companies without considering whether your content aligns with their needs.

In my case, universities are a natural fit because they often have history departments and academic spaces where my work is familiar and respected. So, I target universities primarily. However, I recognize that my niche lies within academia. For speakers in other areas, it may be different. You must identify the organizations or groups that genuinely value and relate to your message. Understand where your expertise aligns best and where your content is recognized and validated.

Grant Baldwin:

Indeed, it’s about honing in on your niche and identifying the audience that inherently understands and appreciates the value of your message. While you clearly recognize today that universities and academic settings are your ideal audience due to your academic background and the nature of your content, how did you initially arrive at this understanding when you were just starting out? What advice would you offer to speakers in the early stages of their careers who are working to pinpoint their ideal audience?

What advice would you offer to people trying to narrow down their audiences?

Dominique Luster:

Navigating this process of finding your ideal audience can feel like a series of trial and error, to be honest. While I wish there were a magic formula, the reality is that it often involves experimentation. However, there are valuable resources that can provide guidance. For instance, I stumbled upon a podcast episode featuring Michael Port, and it led me to his book, “Book Yourself Solid.” I’m not here to promote it, but it genuinely helped me clarify my focus. The book emphasizes identifying what you’re passionate about, what you excel at, and what the world is willing to pay you for. It’s like a Venn diagram exercise that encourages you to distill your core message. I highly recommend it to anyone struggling with this aspect.

Grant Baldwin:

Michael Port is indeed fantastic, and his insights can be incredibly valuable. He’s been a guest on the show, and we’ve had great discussions. So, it’s great to hear that his work has been beneficial for you.

Dominique Luster:

Absolutely. Now, my advice to those trying to pinpoint their ideal audience is to leverage existing resources. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There’s a wealth of literature and information available to expand your understanding of various fields, arenas, modalities, and formats. These resources can help shape your narrative and focus, allowing you to enter your chosen field as prepared as possible. If you still find yourself unsure, don’t hesitate to seek guidance and ask for help from experienced individuals who have traversed similar paths.

Grant Baldwin:

You mentioned speaking at women’s leadership conferences in a college setting. Could you shed light on other groups within a college or university that may be interested in hiring speakers for DEI-related topics?

What groups would hire a DEI speaker?

Dominique Luster:

Certainly, within a college or university setting, there are numerous groups and offices that may have an interest in DEI-related topics. A valuable approach is to utilize resources like LinkedIn to identify organizational structures and relevant job titles. Here are some key groups and offices to consider:

  1. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Offices: Many campuses now have DEI officers or departments dedicated to diversity and inclusion initiatives.
  2. Provost or Chancellor’s Office: This administrative branch often oversees cross-campus programming and may be interested in DEI-related talks.
  3. Entrepreneurial Centers: Larger universities often have centers dedicated to entrepreneurship and innovation, which might be open to hiring speakers.
  4. Administrative Offices: Various administrative offices, such as facilities or adjunct departments, may have budgets for speakers.
  5. Faculty or Staff Unions: On unionized campuses, unions may organize programming and events, making them potential clients.
  6. History Departments: If your expertise aligns with history or a specific academic discipline, consider reaching out to relevant departments.
  7. University Libraries: University libraries often host events and lectures, making them potential venues for DEI-related talks.

It’s important to adapt your approach based on the size and structure of the institution. Larger universities may offer a wider range of opportunities, while smaller colleges might have specific needs that align with your expertise.

Grant Baldwin:

Now, let’s explore the corporate space. While some corporations have dedicated DEI departments and budgets for speakers, others may not be as well-equipped. Should speakers primarily focus on larger companies with established DEI departments, or are there opportunities within smaller organizations that may not have dedicated DEI resources?

Dominique Luster:

I’d like to preface this by saying that I’m not an expert in the corporate sphere, but I’ve gained some insights through my experiences. In contrast to common belief, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Personally, I gravitate towards smaller, more niche audiences because I value personal conversations. I believe that connecting on a personal level is essential in conveying my strong beliefs in history, humanity, and a better future. By engaging with a smaller audience, I can have intimate, meaningful discussions with individuals who share my passion and beliefs. This approach resonates with me, and I’ve found it to be more impactful than targeting larger corporations with extensive diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) resources.

In larger corporations with dedicated DEI offices, it’s possible for your message to get lost amidst the multitude of initiatives and speakers. When you’re a newer speaker, you might find yourself competing with well-established speakers who have substantial recognition and resources. In contrast, connecting with smaller organizations allows me to make a more profound impact on individuals who align with my mission.

Grant Baldwin:

Your approach of focusing on smaller, more intimate settings certainly makes sense, especially for speakers who want to establish a meaningful connection with their audience. In recent years, the spotlight has been on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues due to various events. Have you noticed an increase in opportunities or awareness among organizations, companies, colleges, and universities to bring in speakers to address these topics?

Due to social events in the past few years, has the demand for your industry increased?

Dominique Luster:

It’s an intriguing and nuanced situation. The increased awareness surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues in recent years is akin to a recurring historical pattern. Major movements, like the one triggered by the tragic death of George Floyd, are often followed by subsequent waves of response. History has shown that these waves and patterns tend to reoccur.

This isn’t the first time in history that marginalized communities have faced grave injustices, nor is it the first time society has responded to such atrocities. History doesn’t repeat itself, but human behaviors often follow similar patterns when faced with similar circumstances. What we are witnessing now is part of a broader historical context, where recurring inputs have led to familiar outcomes. The key lies in learning from these past patterns to prevent the recurrence of similar injustices. It’s about becoming active agents in shaping a more progressive and equitable future rather than passively allowing history to repeat itself.

So, to address your question, the current movement is not entirely new, and while there are indeed more voices speaking out, the fundamental issues have persisted throughout history. It’s crucial to focus on sustainable efforts and to draw lessons from the past to create lasting change.

Grant Baldwin:

Your perspective on learning from history and actively participating in shaping a better future is valuable. Now, you’ve mentioned that your speaking engagements have led to consulting opportunities. Could you elaborate on the consulting side of your business? Who do you consult with, what topics do you cover, and how does this consulting work in practice?

How have your consulting and speaking busienss grown together?

Dominique Luster:

My consulting work is quite diverse and revolves around various aspects of archival work. However, the common thread among my consulting projects is the shared belief that history, especially African American history, plays a crucial role in shaping a better world. When I work with organizations or projects that share this belief, we establish a foundation of trust and mutual understanding, which then guides our projects.

Consulting often begins by identifying the right person or organization that aligns with our shared purpose. Rather than pursuing specific projects, I prioritize finding alignment in purpose and values. Once this alignment is established, the projects naturally follow. Consulting projects typically involve cultural heritage organizations, which are often nonprofit entities. These organizations can include libraries, museums, universities, foundations, and more. They all share the goal of preserving and sharing the legacy of marginalized communities through archival materials, such as diaries, papers, and other historical artifacts.

The consulting process may vary depending on the organization’s needs and goals, but the key is aligning with those who share a commitment to preserving history and promoting a more equitable world.

Grant Baldwin:

That’s fascinating. How does your speaking complement your consulting work, and vice versa? How do they intersect and benefit each other in your business?

Dominique Luster:

The relationship between my speaking and consulting work is fluid, and the boundaries often blur. Two main scenarios typically unfold:

  1. Speaking Leading to Consulting: Sometimes, individuals or organizations attend one of my speaking engagements and are inspired by the message I convey. They may reach out to me via email, expressing interest in collaborating on a project. The initial connection made during the speaking event paves the way for consulting opportunities.
  2. Consulting Leading to Speaking: In other cases, as I collaborate with clients on consulting projects, they may recognize the value of sharing our work with a broader audience. For instance, if I’m working with a history department at a university, they might suggest that our project should be presented to the provost’s office or the diversity, equity, and inclusion office. This can lead to speaking opportunities as a way to amplify the impact of our work.

 

In both scenarios, the synergy between speaking and consulting is driven by shared values and the desire to promote the importance of preserving history, particularly African American history, as a means of contributing to a more just and equitable society.

Grant Baldwin:

Great insights for speakers who are interested in this space. What opportunities do you think will continue to exist in the future, and how do you foresee this field evolving?

How do you think this field will continue to evolve?

Dominique Luster:

The diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) space is continually evolving and expanding. What’s intriguing is its flexibility and growth potential. DEI isn’t static; it’s dynamic, just like any other field. What’s changing is how people approach DEI. It’s no longer merely a checkbox on a corporate to-do list. Instead, there’s a shift towards a mindset of making the world a better place. Organizations are increasingly focusing on fostering a sense of belonging, safety, and support for individuals in all aspects of life, not just within corporate settings.

DEI opportunities extend far beyond the corporate world. They span the realms of family, community, and even religious organizations. The key is recognizing that there are abundant opportunities to make a positive impact. As DEI becomes more integrated into our daily lives and societal fabric, it ceases to be a separate entity and becomes an intrinsic part of our quest for a better world.

For new speakers entering this space, there’s a place for you to tap into this evolving landscape.

Grant Baldwin:

Absolutely. A few years ago, you were in a similar position as many aspiring speakers, feeling inspired but not entirely sure where to begin. What advice would you offer to speakers who find themselves in that early stage, eager to share their message, whether related to DEI or any other topic?

Dominique Luster:

Firstly, continue seeking knowledge and inspiration, whether it’s through podcasts, books, or resources like Speaker Lab. Remember that there’s an abundance of valuable content and ideas out there to help you grow.

However, I’d also encourage you to reframe your perspective. Instead of focusing solely on “What can I say?” consider “How can I serve?” Who can benefit from your message, and how can you contribute to making the world a better place? When you approach speaking with a service-oriented mindset, you often find that the people you’re meant to serve will naturally gravitate towards you.

Additionally, start locally. Look for events in your area, using platforms like Eventbrite. Seek out events that align with your message and target those taking place a few months in the future. Identify the event organizers and reach out to them via email, expressing your interest in speaking at their event. While not every response will be positive, you’ll find that some organizers are receptive to new speakers who align with their event’s goals.

Ultimately, it’s about taking that first step and maintaining forward momentum. When you do, you’ll often find that the universe responds in surprising ways.

Grant Baldwin:

Sound advice, Dominique. Thank you for sharing your valuable insights and experiences with us today. If our listeners want to connect with you or learn more about your work, where can they find you?

Dominique Luster:

Thank you for having me; it’s been a fantastic conversation. You can find me on all major platforms under the handle “thelustercompany.” Visit my website at thelustercompany.com or connect with me on Instagram at @thelustercompany.

Grant Baldwin:

Thank you once again, Dominique. We appreciate your time and expertise.

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